Is the Matter of Metaphysics Immaterial? Yes and No

Is the Matter of Metaphysics Immaterial? Yes and No
When God wills a thing, God says, “Be,” and it is. – Qur’an 36:82 God was, and there was nothing with God. – Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ Being is the essence of the Divine Being. – Abū al-Ĥasan al-Ash¢arī It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all the talk about being—but, in this way, he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss. – Socrates

The Greek word philosophia is composed of two words: philo, which means “love,” and sophia, which is the highest of Aristotle’s five intellectual virtues—speculative wisdom, as opposed to prudence, or practical wisdom.

The pursuit of philosophy—essentially a process of asking, and seeking answers to, questions about the most fundamental issues concerning our world and ourselves—has been a universal quest across time and place.

All peoples philosophize to greater or lesser degrees; those who don’t either look to others knowingly to philosophize for them, or unwittingly imbibe the philosophies of others. Unfortunately, philosophy, once the honored servant of theology, now barely serves itself.

Hence, most religions no longer produce exemplary thinkers who can protect and defend their faiths with the time-tested tools of philosophy, and most believers no longer ask the central questions about our world, let alone seek their answers. Religion is reduced, at best, to “blind faith” and, at worst, to fanatical conformity that often leads to enmity towards those outside their faith and even virulent violence towards those within and without.

A revival of philosophy—and, in particular, metaphysics—is crucial for a restoration of genuine faith fortified with reason and genuine civilization that cultivates care for the common good.

“Metaphysics” was a term used in the first century B.C. by Andronicus of Rhodes, the editor of Aristotle’s works, to refer to Aristotle’s treatise on theology, which Andronicus had placed immediately after Aristotle’s book on physics:

The term literally means “what follows physics” and simply identified the book’s physical location. The label, however, stuck. Over time, it came to mean “the study of what is beyond the physical world.” Aristotle himself referred to the subject at times as “theology” and at others as “the first philosophy,” given its pursuit of the first causes of things, not to mention its ranking, in his estimation, as the most important human pursuit among our varied intellectual endeavors.

The metaphysician seeks to understand being—or existence—as being, unlike the physicist, who wants to understand being as physical objects in motion, or the mathematician, who explores being as abstracted quantities, or the natural scientist, who studies being in all the diversity of its animate and inanimate species.

The metaphysician also attempts to understand the various types of being, including the immaterial—in the realm of realities beyond matter, such as God, angels, the human soul, and the experiential world of non-quantifiable quality. 

Metaphysics is also the science of abstraction: the attempt to grasp the nature of things in their immaterial and universal essences. (The physical sciences, in this way, have a metaphysical dimension in that their universal laws are statements about essence abstracted from particular instances.)

Metaphysics aims to understand first principles, including those of causation itself, its nature, scope, and limits. This invariably means it investigates the contents of our minds, including our presuppositions (all that we assume or take for granted), how it is that we perceive the world, and the effects of those presuppositions on our active life, which are left unexamined by most people—hence, Socrates’ famous dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Ultimately, then, metaphysics reveals a method of analysis to understand problems from first principles, which then allows the challenges that those problems present to be addressed at their causative levels—at their hidden roots, not just their visible branches. In this way, metaphysics precedes method. 

Over a millennium after Aristotle, “the Proof of Islam,” Imam Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), perhaps Islam’s greatest theoretical jurist, theologian, and intellectual, concluded that “theology” (meaning metaphysics) is the only universal science, writing in his last and most original and significant work, al-Mustaśfā:

The only universal knowledge among the religious sciences is theology, and all the other sciences, such as law and jurisprudence, prophetic tradition, and exegesis, are particular sciences.… It is the theologian [metaphysician] alone who ponders the most general of things: that is being itself.… Revelation does not present anything that contradicts reason, but it does present matters that are inaccessible to unaided reason.

For instance, the intellect alone cannot determine that obedience to divine law is a means to salvation in the afterlife, or that disobedience can result in damnation, but it cannot judge it to be inconceivable either. One can also determine that miracles necessitate the veracity of one who is able to perform a miracle as a proof of his truthfulness. So, if the Messenger ﷺ tells us of such, it is the intellect that verifies this by way of it. This is what theology contains.

You should know from the above that one should begin one’s intellectual journey in the most universal of things first, and that is being. Then one should move from there by degrees to the particulars that we have mentioned, and, by that, one can establish the first principles of all the other religious sciences, including the Book, the Sunnah, and the veracity of the Messenger ﷺ…. So theology is the most exalted knowledge in rank, given that all other particulars proceed from it.

“Theology treated the ills of the spiritual body; law treated the ills of the social body; and medicine treated the ills of the physical body.”

Traditionally, metaphysics was studied after one mastered the qualitative arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quantitative sciences of arithmetic, geometry, harmony, and astronomy, known in the Latinate West as the Trivium and the Quadrivium, or the “liberal arts,” as mastering them freed the mind from the fetters of faulty thinking.

Naśīr al-Dīn al-Ţūsī (d. 673/1274) states in his Ethics that these seven sciences are the foundation of knowledge. Armed with these essential “instruments,” students went on to study theology, law, or medicine, the three advanced studies of the pre-modern world. Theology treated the ills of the spiritual body; law treated the ills of the social body; and medicine treated the ills of the physical body.

Theology was the most exalted of these studies in both the Muslim and Christian worlds, and at its foundation was metaphysics: the science of being qua being. Given that every science seeks to know the ultimate causes of things, all scientific knowledge is universal; but whereas the natural and mathematical sciences achieve universal knowledge of a particular species or mode of being, metaphysics studies beings from the formality of their existence itself, and therefore is the most universal science.

Hence, there is no being or mode of being that falls outside of the proper causes and principles of metaphysics. 

Philosophy in the Islamic Tradition

Philosophy has been part of the Islamic civilization from the start. Within the first century of Islam, Muslims encountered the great peripatetic schools of Egypt, the Levant, and Persia.

Many of the early creedal disputes emerged from metaphysical debates about the logos (kalimah) with Christians who argued that Christ, identified as the logos in the Qur’an, must be co-eternal with God, given that the Muslims believed that the Qur’an was the divine logos and, therefore, an eternal attribute of the divine.

The nascent Muslim intellectual tradition was greatly influenced by converts to Islam who had prior philosophical training, as well as by Christian Arabs, who were translating the works of Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, and others into Arabic, opening up new wellsprings of thought for the intellectually thirsty among the faithful. Muslim scholars, with an insatiable appetite for new knowledge, relished these texts filled with challenging ideas.

Even in moral philosophy, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics became the basis for the religion’s systematic method of ethical inquiry, while remaining firmly rooted in Qur’anic and prophetic teachings. Increasingly, the writings of Muslim scholars reflected the influence of Hellenistic rigor.

Many traditionalists viewed this new influence as a dangerous foreign innovation, but their concerns had little impact on the rapid dissemination of Greek thought among Muslims, especially after certain caliphs succumbed to the appeal of all things philosophical. 

In the early period of Islam’s rapid spread, philosophy and metaphysics became subjects of great conversations among Muslim scholars. The Persian polymath, Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037), arguably one of the most influential men in intellectual history, did more to introduce Hellenistic thought into the Muslim world than any other scholar. In his book, al-Najāh, he describes metaphysics as follows:

[The] subject of metaphysics is the existent… inasmuch as it applies to the principle of existence and inasmuch as something universal attaches to it (such as unity and multiplicity, potentiality and actuality, eternity and coming into being, cause and effect, universality and particularity, completeness and incompleteness, as well as necessity and possibility).

Imam al-Ghazālī immersed himself in the works of Ibn Sīnā, which resulted initially in a neutral summa of Ibn Sīnā’s thought and in a later work containing a scathing critique of those conclusions that Imam al-Ghazālī judged incompatible with orthodox belief.

Despite his assault on the philosophers, al-Ghazālī recognized the immense value of many of their metaphysical insights—as well as their rigorous method of material and formal logic—in developing sophisticated defenses of the religion.

He cogently argued that the study of logic, as a “grammar of thought,” should be required for jurists and theologians. Al-Ghazālī was the first to incorporate term logic into jurisprudence, went on to pen five books on logic, and added a forty-page introduction on the method of demonstrative proof in his magnum opus, al-Mustaśfā. In the introduction he writes:

This prologue [to logic] is not part of jurisprudence; it is not even an introductory part of it. Indeed, it is an introduction to the pursuit of all knowledge. Moreover, someone who has not mastered it is not trustworthy in the sciences he knows.

“[The] reintroduction of Greek thought through its Arabic sources and Muslim commentaries helped illuminate the so-called Dark Ages and eventually usher in the Renaissance. ”

Almost a century after al-Ghazālī’s well-received criticism of the heterodox beliefs of the philosophers, the peripatetic luminary and consummate jurist, Ibn Rushd (d. 595/1198), known in the West as Averroes, wrote his caustic critique of al-Ghazālī’s Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Western Christians embraced Averroes’ thought, but Eastern Muslims rejected his philosophical vision and instead adopted a superficial version of al-Ghazālī’s critique without his highly nuanced approach to philosophy and its place in Islam.

This did not serve the scholastic community well, as it failed to profit from Imam al-Ghazālī’s understanding of philosophy’s power to produce formidable scholars who could provide a muscular defense of Islam against ideological threats.

Ironically, Ibn Rushd’s philosophical works and magisterial commentaries on Aristotle’s often abstruse writings, while withering among Muslims, flourished in the great Catholic universities. This reintroduction of Greek thought through its Arabic sources and Muslim commentaries helped illuminate the so-called Dark Ages and eventually usher in the Renaissance. 

Despite philosophy’s decline among Sunni scholars, some continued to maintain a robust engagement with philosophy. One such figure is the highly consequential Persian jurist, theologian, and Qur’anic exegete, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209), who, despite maintaining his own critical perspective, was deeply influenced by both Ibn Sīnā and al-Ghazālī. In his multi-volume commentary on the Qur’an, Mafātīĥ al-Ghayb, he takes an unprecedented philosophical approach to unravel the mysteries of revelation through discursive reason.

In doing so, he fuses philosophy and religion and represents a historical milestone in the ongoing effort to use both reason and revelation to understand the Creator and His creation. These “innovative” approaches to theology, jurisprudence, and exegesis did not go unnoticed, and major scholars, such as Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728/1328) and Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406), challenged the philosophical tradition, despite, ironically, being steeped in it themselves.

Moreover, Ibn Khaldūn, like al-Ghazālī before him, recognized philosophy’s power and endorsed the rigor of its method:

This knowledge [philosophy] does not achieve the aims that it pursues, not to mention those aspects that contradict revelation and its apparent meanings. I don’t really see any fruits except for one: It hones and sharpens the intellect’s abilities to structure proofs and demonstrate arguments in order to acquire a sound and excellent faculty of demonstration, the reason being that the philosophers stipulate rigor in their reasoning and demand that one reasons with excellence and finesse, just as they have argued in their art of logic.

Indeed, they often take this approach in their natural philosophical pursuits of a scientific nature and in their teachings, and other branches of knowledge. The researcher attains mastery of this method due to the constant demands of a demonstrative approach and its conditions of strict methodical rigor and soundness in argumentation and testing. This is due to the fact that, although it does not lead to the aims they desire [due to their speculative nature], it is the soundest method for supplying the rules of human reasoning.

Ibn Khaldūn, arguably the first philosopher of history, does not deem speculative philosophy of great use other than in its method of inquiry. Unlike al-Ghazālī, he does not recognize the importance of the metaphysics that not only produced that method but ultimately both grounds it and determines whether it is valid or not.

It is Ibn Khaldūn, though, who identifies the ossification of tradition and the intellectual stagnation that stifled the Muslim world; during his time, philosophy, at least in the Sunni world, is in major decline. Even the dialectical tradition that produced the polemical works of al-Ghazālī and Ibn Rushd, and the great conversation that animated scholars to study the problems of the past and to craft creative responses fitting the unique circumstances of their time, was all but over. 

Philosophy is by now largely reduced to theosophy, and despite an active mystical tradition of sophisticated subtlety found in the works of such scholars as Mullā Śadrā (d. 1050/1640), who continue a metaphysical engagement, the natural sciences all but disappear, something al-Ghazālī warned about in his Book of Knowledge, which opens his magnum opus Iĥyā’ ¢ulūm al-dīn (Revivification of the Islamic Sciences).

Philosophy has now acquired a pejorative connotation in the Muslim community, often carrying the implication of disbelief. One reason for this is the aforementioned distrust of philosophy certain great scholars had, along with the undeniable fact that some other Muslim philosophers were clearly heretical or heterodox and even beyond the pale of Islam in their beliefs.

But a subtler and more pernicious reason is that with the decay of the dynamic scholastic tradition that once pursued all forms of knowledge, college studies became increasingly more focused on strictly religious and devotional subjects. This led to the mistaken assumption among some reformers that one should rely solely on revelation to understand the world and how to live in it.

Yet never in our history have Muslim scholars posited that revelation alone (sola scriptura) is enough, as opposed to revelation illumined by reason and tradition (prima scriptura).7


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